People Say They Did the Best They Could

What My Parents Believed

No One Ever Said We Were Democrats. Neither of my parents campaigned nor wore political buttons nor wrote thoughtful letters to politicians. They were Catholics, went to Catholic schools, Catholic colleges, married in the Catholic church. They took on the mantle of Irish Catholicism as if it were a physical birthmark, a once-a-Catholic-always-a-Catholic mental tattoo unaccompanied by belief in God or Jesus. They took advantage of the culture of the sacraments— Holy Communion, Marriage, Baptism—to display how beautiful we all were in our expensive clothes, polished shoes, fashionable hair styles.

They argued. About money mostly. And other women, other men. They agreed on important things. Pope Pius XII was a backwater imbecile for invoking papal infallibility in 1950 when he proclaimed all Catholics must believe Mary didn’t suffer physical death and was assumed into heaven. This new doctrine, along with the Pope’s insisting the Church of Rome stay neutral during the Holocaust, put a stake in their religiousity.

They hated right-wing bullies like Senator Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover. McCarthy was a reckless demagogue who ruined lives with public witch hunts and unsubstantiated accusations against communist sympathizers. FBI Director Hoover amassed power by steering favorable press and policy his way using his secret files to blackmail Congress and Presidents alike. Throughout their lives my parents derided the Red Cross for raising money for war-time troops then charging soldiers and sailors for their so-called giveaways like toothpaste, coffee and donuts. My mother eagerly showed how smart she was in these matters. After all, my parents attended college in the nation’s capitol in the years leading up to World War II. She gossiped about under-informed conversationalists, “What do you expect, they don’t even read the New York Times.”

During the war, they lived in housing provided by the Navy in Key West. With no children to mind, they spent evenings in the Officer’s Club chattering about the day’s news, forming opinions and cooling off with rum smuggled in from Cuba. The men were Navy pilots and Naval intelligence officers. Some worked in the newly-formed CIA. Anyone who didn’t drink was not to be trusted. They never went to a restaurant, nor any gathering, party, picnic, or church function unless they knew alcohol would be served.

Any friend or relative who stopped drinking was derided as a reformed drinker, as if that were a dirty word. My father eventually stopped drinking and went to Alcoholics Anonymous, but he still steered clear of social events and restaurants where there was no alcohol. With all their strong opinions about religion and politics, the foundational belief of my parents was that life without alcohol was as unsophisticated and tasteless as a Greek diner.

My father, divorced from my mother, helped me get sober in 1979. When I told my family I was in AA, my older sister, glass of wine in hand, said, “Well. Just because you’re an alcoholic, doesn’t mean everyone is.”

 

Irish DNA: Inheriting A Stigma

Irish DNA seems to have a gene actively predisposed to alcoholism though there’s no scientific evidence that it’s hereditary.

The first ugly secret in my family is that my twenty-three year old mother, Agnes Donnelly Ryan Burke, was drunk in the Georgetown Inn in Washington with my father at the time her mother died. She wasn’t located until the next day. Later that year my parents were married in Key West where my father, Bill, flew reconnaissance planes across the Florida Straits to Cuba. Their married life began with Bill spending two weeks in the brig after a drunken brawl over Agnes.

Alcohol addiction begins with an immature reaction to the emotional and physical pain of adverse childhood and young adult experiences. When and why did Agnes and Bill cross over from heavy drinking to alcohol disease? Bill’s mother died when he was three so he had early trauma. Agnes was prescribed Guinness Stout when she was twelve for anemia so she had early permission. Their chaotic, calamitous alcoholic marriage intruded on the childhoods of my three sisters and me but as far as I know we are not all alcoholics. We all manifest common characteristics of growing up in an alcoholic home: fear of emotions, conflict avoidance, perfectionism, compulsive behavior, depression, melodrama, overreaction to change, and the denial of all these traits and their connection to alcoholism.

In the forty-one years I’ve been in Alcoholics Anonymous, there have been ongoing, persistent discussions, “Is it hereditary? Is it a disease?” Since the1900’s the language describing alcoholism has screamed out to the non-addicted populace, WE CAN’T HELP IT. The world has been given plenty of messages to enable it to accept us alcoholics as normal people with medical problems. Currently, the community that studies these questions is
untitledpromulgating the idea that addiction is a biological disorder from a dysfunctional brain – not inherited and certainly not a moral failing.

This past year I had coffee after church with a new acquaintance. In swapping little tales about ourselves she told me she had a match.com date who told her he was in AA. “Isn’t that disgusting?” she said. I abruptly excused myself saying I had forgotten to walk my dog and had to run right home.

Alcoholism was shameful before I was born, shameful in my family growing up, shameful in myself, and shameful now. All the work that has gone into trying to change negative thinking against alcoholics has not shifted the stigma one iota. Two million recovering alcoholics still sneak off to life-changing, life-saving AA meetings, keeping their recovery a shameful secret.

Agnes died of alcoholic brain syndrome (wet brain) when she was seventy. Bill joined AA when he was forty-five and stayed sober for 35 years until he died. He was proud to be part of a recovery community and thrived by helping others. But he never felt as though he quite measured up to the world outside of the AA fellowship. He wasn’t secretive about his alcoholism, nonetheless, the stigma hounded him until the end.